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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 3.4 (2000) 150-168



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Thomistic Ethics in America

John Haldane


The greatest institutional contributions to Catholic philosophy in the modern English-speaking world have been made in the United States in the twentieth century. European influences have been strong, particularly through the work of Gilson, Maritain, Pieper, and Simon, but they served principally to stimulate generations of Americans to draw upon and reformulate Catholic philosophical thought, especially but not exclusively Thomism. University presses, such as those of Catholic University of America, Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola, and Marquette, have been important in the dissemination of these ideas; however the primary critical fora of Catholic thought have been journals. In the field of philosophy, narrowly construed, a familiar trio of periodicals spans three quarters of the twentieth century: the Modern Schoolman founded in 1925, New Scholasticism established in 1927 and continued from 1990 as the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, and the Thomist founded in 1939. (To which might be added, as favoring Catholic thought, two general philosophy journals: the Review of Metaphysics established in 1947 and the International Philosophical Quarterly founded in 1961.) [End Page 150]

Since these periodicals were established, the range of philosophical problems and approaches has widened. There is a need to address this while also maintaining links between philosophy and other branches of humane reflection and scholarship. This latter is, I think, of particular importance in consequence of the trend of academic philosophy to have become increasingly inaccessible to nonprofessionals. That tendency was near to inevitable given the scientific conception of knowledge adopted by the large American research universities, which is now dominant in all but a few institutions. Over the same period, however, the number of issues on which nonphilosophers and nonacademics in general seek informed reflection and guidance has grown considerably. This is particularly true of public policy questions. Indeed, the need of places where there can be discussion of issues of the first importance contributed to by philosophers, theologians, cultural historians, literary critics and others is greater than ever before.

1. Aquinas, Contemporary Ethics, and Natural Law

Apart from the spheres of metaphysics and natural theology, Aquinas's greatest influence, and certainly the field in which his ideas have had an impact beyond the Catholic world, is that of ethics and politics. Thomas's own principal writings in this area are to be found in the First Part of the Second Part (the Prima Secundae) of the Summa Theologiae, in his Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and in his Treatise on Kingship. These texts, together with commentaries upon them, served as the main model of Catholic ethics throughout the heyday of the revival of Thomism inaugurated in 1879 by Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris, or to use Leo's own less often quoted title: "The Restoration in Catholic schools of Christian Philosophy according to the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor." With the reception of the Second Vatican Council and in conformity with the character of the 1960s, however, Catholic moral [End Page 151] theology underwent a process of critical reconstruction and this led many to abandon the Thomistic natural-law tradition in favor of more experientially and existentially oriented approaches.

Within philosophy, however, the situation was rather different. There are several reasons for this. First, philosophers are generally concerned with theoretical coherence and argumentative rigour, and Thomas's style of ethics exhibits both, whereas at least some of the new modes appeared to exhibit neither. Second, Aquinas grounds his moral philosophy in metaphysics in the form of the philosophy of nature, and this provides for a robust notion of objectivity of ethical judgment in contrast to the seeming subjectivity of existentialist and sentimentalist approaches. Third, in the secular English-language philosophy of the 1960s there had been a revival of interest in Aristotelian ethics and more broadly in objectivist naturalism of a sort quite close to Aquinas's own. Some of those responsible for the revival, such as Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach, were themselves Catholics; others, such as Philippa Foot and Geoffrey...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-791X
Print ISSN
1091-6687
Pages
pp. 150-168
Launched on MUSE
2000-11-01
Open Access
No
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